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Making a huge first impression is one of the hardest things to do in pro bodybuilding. Each year a new crop of rookies joins the IFBB Pro League, still basking in their amateur success. But the moment they step on a pro stage their expectations change. Almost all of them watch veterans pose in first callouts. Many will wait a torturously long time to hear their numbers called. However, there are rare exceptions. Check out the list of the 16 men who won their debuts in professional open IFBB contests since 1978 (the first year of an expanded pro schedule). It illuminates just how rare Mamdouh Elssbiay’s accomplishments were last year and how unique Phil Heath’s two-for-two was in 2006. Spoiler alert: They’re the only two men from the past two decades on our countdown of the 10 best rookies of all time. That just goes to show you how difficult it is to make a big first impression in the big league.

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10. Mamdouh Elssbiay, 2013

Wins: 1

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Olympia Finish: 8th

No mass monster made a greater impact in New York City since King Kong went on a rampage. From the moment 28-year-old Elssbiay stepped onstage at last May’s New York Pro weighing 288, he sent shock waves through the bodybuilding world. After his victory in Manhattan, expectations were high for his Olympia unveiling. Some claim his eighth at the O punctured his high-flying status.

But last year was a particularly deep O lineup, and he simply mistimed his conditioning. More important, no rookie has finished higher in an Olympia since Chris Cormier was sixth in 1994. It’s rare now for a newcomer to even qualify for the big show. Even of his peak, the Egyptian Elssbiay was judged to be the world’s eighth-best bodybuilder just five months after his victorious pro debut. He had a monster first year.

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9. PORTER COTTRELL, 1992

Wins: 2

Olympia Finish: 8th

Cottrell is probably

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the least-known name on our list. Competing in the grow-fast ’90s, he was a throwback to the lighter ’80s. At 5'6" and 195, he won with aesthetic balance and just enough thickness. After losing the overall 1991 Nationals to Kevin Levrone (No. 2 on our list), Cottrell battled his fellow rookie five times the following year. Cottrell bested Levrone in the initial duel and finished behind him the next four.

Although he won his first two pro shows at 29, his rookie year was less impressive afterward. He placed anywhere from second to seventh in six other contests. Then, he got back on track in 1993, racking up victories in all three contests he entered. However, as size standards continued to expand, this Kentucky fireman never won again after his first two Pro League seasons. He retired in 1999.

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8. Phil Heath, 2006

Wins: 1

Olympia Finish: None

After years of having to come in under 225, most former heavyweights bulk up for their pro debuts—and they’re lucky to land in single digits. Wary of this approach, 26-year-old Phil Heath did the opposite. He took the NPC by storm in 2005, winning the USA as a heavyweight in his first try for a pro card. Although the current Mr. Olympia clearly had the potential to fill into super-heavy dimensions, he hadn’t yet put in the years of toil. So, for his pro debut at the Colorado pro in 2006, he maximized the cuts and dialed himself in at 206 (nine less than the USA) with a stunning degree of detailing. One week later, he won again, this time at the New York Pro. The Gift had five more years of growing ahead of him before he won his first of three Sandows, but as a rookie he used the right strategy for taking home the biggest check. He converted to high-def.

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7. MICHAEL FRANCOIS, 1994
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Wins: 2

Olympia Finish: None

This record may never be broken: most consecutive victories to start a pro career. Only 16 men over the past 36 years won their debut. Only five of those, including Heath, went on to also triumph in their second show. And only one continued his winning streak. Michael Francois won both of his shows in 1994, his rookie season, at 29. Then,

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he prevailed at his initial two contests, including the Arnold Classic, the following year. What makes his “first-four” record especially notable is the fact that he never won again and, in three attempts, he never even cracked the Olympia top six. Suffering from colitis, he retired after 1997. Because he nabbed only two of his four straight titles in his inaugural season, he’s only seventh in our rookie ranking. However, Francois’ initial four-for-four may never be topped.

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6. MIKE MENTZER, 1979

Wins: 1

Olympia Finish: 1st in Heavyweight Class

Not only did Mentzer win a contest in his rookie year, but, at 27, he took the heavyweight Olympia class before losing the overall to Frank Zane. Therefore, it might seem he established himself as the world’s No. 2 bodybuilder. That’s debatable. He entered five contests in 1979, his first pro year, and he was second and third in the three not previously mentioned. The four men who finished ahead of him that year were all Olympia lightweights in 1979, and under-200-pound guys were dominating bodybuilding then. Put simply, the heavyweight class was much easier to win than its lighter counterpart. Nevertheless, this thickly muscled iconoclast certainly set himself up as a legitimate threat for the Olympia crown in his sophomore year. Unfortunately, after his controversial fifth-place finish in the 1980 Olympia, Mentzer (who died in 2001) never competed again, leaving us to wonder how great he could have been.

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5. RICH GASPARI, 1985

Wins: 0

Olympia Finish: 3rd

Only Arnold Schwarzenegger,

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who was second in the Olympia at 22 and won it at 23, accomplished more in bodybuilding’s ultimate contest at a younger age than Gaspari. But there was merely one other competitor when Schwarzenegger was second and two when he won. Gaspari had only just turned 22 when he finished second to Albert Beckles in his pro debut at the 1985 Night of Champions. His appearance was shocking. He had been the best light-heavy at the Nationals and World Championships the year before, but in 1985 he showed up with an entirely new physique, much thicker and with a standard-setting level of contest definition (striated glutes!). Bringing his high-def, 3-D look to that year’s Olympia, he placed third, behind only Lee Haney and Beckles, and ahead of 21 others.

Gaspari was second in the Olympia the next three years, part of a 16-contest stretch in which he never finished lower than second and racked up nine wins—all before his 26th birthday. It was all foreshadowed in his rookie year, when, despite not winning a title, he transformed his physique and revolutionized contest conditioning.

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4. VINCE TAYLOR, 1989

Wins: 1

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Olympia Finish: 3rd

As Gaspari illustrates, youth is a major theme of this countdown. Nine of the men included here debuted while in their 20s. Taylor is the exception. He was 32 when he entered and won his frst pro contest in 1989. And he was 33 when he placed third in that year’s Olympia, defeating some of the greatest bodybuilders of the era, including Gaspari (Olympia runner-up the previous three years) and Mohammed Benaziza (winner of six pro shows the next year).

Taylor had a pair of high-caliber guns, but it was his pleasing lines and masterful posing that won over judges and fans. It’s appropriate he was the last great ’80s bodybuilder, because, even as mass standards changed over the next two decades, he continued to successfully emphasize shape over size.

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3. LEE HANEY, 1983

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Wins: 2

Olympia Finish: 3rd

The man who won a record eight Sandows (1984–91) was, befitting his nickname, “Total-Lee Awesome” from the beginning. After dominating amateur bodybuilding in 1982 with victories at the Nationals and World Championships, all eyes were on the 23-year-old phenom in 1983. And he kept right on growing and winning, nabbing titles in his first two pro shows. He placed third in his debut Mr. Olympia that year (and collected seconds and thirds in subsequent shows), but as impressive at that was, it only foreshadowed what was to come. That’s because at 5’11” and 235 (with room to expand) he had at least 50 pounds on each of the two men who placed ahead of him in the O. In retrospect, 1983 was merely a prelude to the eight years and eight Sandows that followed—the greatest stretch of dominance in bodybuilding history. After his first year, Haney never lost again.

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2. KEVIN LEVRONE, 1992

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Wins: 2

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Olympia Finish: 2nd

Based on his professional debut, a third in the Chicago Pro (won by fellow rookie Porter Cottrell), you would never think Levrone could climb this high on our countdown. But for the remainder of 1992, he was beatable by only one person in the world—Dorian Yates, who grabbed his first of six straight Sandows that year. After his debut, the 26-year-old Levrone won the Night of Champions, relegating Cottrell to second.

Still, judges and fans were dubious about his making a major mark in the Olympia in his first attempt. But did he ever. He was runner-up to Yates in bodybuilding’s ultimate contest, as he was in the subsequent English Grand Prix. For good measure, he finished the year with a win at the German Grand Prix (Yates did not compete). Over his career, Levrone won 18 more pro contests and finished second in three more Olympias before retiring in 2003. In his debut season of 1992, he established himself as the planet’s second-best bodybuilder. Little did he know then, a new rookie would knock him out of that position the following year.

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1. FLEX WHEELER, 1993

Wins: 4

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Olympia Finish: 2nd

Unless someone someday wins the Olympia in their first Pro League year, Wheeler’s 1993 is not going to be topped. He is bodybuilding’s all-time Rookie of the Year. Let’s start with the fact that at 27 he won his initial two pro contests, the Ironman Pro and the prestigious Arnold Classic. And their lineups were stacked. Legends Lee Labrada and Vince Taylor—both at the top of their games—were second and third, respectively, in both contests. Wheeler then went on to place second behind Yates in his debut Mr. Olympia, with Levrone, Labrada, and Shawn Ray among the greats behind him on score sheets. Subsequently, the Californian juggernaut won two contests on the Euro Tour and placed second in another.

Over the next

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decade, he collected 13 more pro titles and was runner-up in the Olympia twice more, proving you can trust first impressions. This was his final tally for 1993: four wins (including the Arnold) and two seconds (including the Olympia) in six contests, all against the deepest era of physique talent ever assembled. That was a straight-out-of-the-gate stretch of physique excellence that will likely never be topped. FLEX